Zambian Democracy: All Heat, No Light

By Alastair Fraser

After the deaths of two serving Presidents, Levy Mwanawasa in 2008 and Michael Sata in 2014, Zambians have been to the polls five times in the last decade. Their most recent visit, on 11 August, involved a complex series of elections under new constitutional rules including the requirement that the winner secure more than 50% of the vote, even if this necessitated a second round run-off. Voters were offered five separate ballot papers to choose a President, MPs, mayors/council chairpersons, councillors and finally to vote in a referendum on further amendments to the constitution and the introduction of a Bill of Rights. The counting was supposed to take two days. A fortnight later, the Electoral Commission has almost finished posting preliminary results on its website.

The ruling Patriotic Front (PF) won the National Assembly and local government elections comfortably. Turnout was too low for the referendum to pass, even though a majority of those who voted approved. Still, we are no closer to knowing who the next President will be. The incumbent, Edgar Lungu, very narrowly cleared the 50% hurdle in the first round. But the poll has sparked a petition to the (new) Constitutional Court. The opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) claim the results have been rigged and also object to bias in the public media and the ways in which the Public Order Act was deployed throughout the campaign to frustrate their mobilisation.

Previous Zambian election petitions have gone nowhere. A ruling is expected on 1 September on whether the incumbent is allowed to stay in office during the case, or must stand down in favour of the Speaker.  Debates on this question, and whether the President elect ought to have been sworn in (he hasn’t been) have been complicated by playing the game under unfamiliar rules, and by the fact that a typo in the numbering of clauses and poor drafting in the new Constitutional text were not picked up before the election.  The Court will start hearings on the election petition itself on Friday 2 September. Given that it is supposed to rule within a fourteen days of the petition’s submission (two weeks ago on Friday) arguments might well rumble on beyond, not least on what constitutes fourteen days . Whatever happens, these very tight elections will not generate a government able to command widespread acceptance of its legitimacy.

Both before and since the elections, profound political polarization has generated unusually open ethnic tensions and serious political violence that are not unprecedented, but which Zambians hoped they would not see again. The Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) was forced to suspend campaigning in Lusaka Province for 10 days because of the violence. The most influential private newspaper  was closed down (formally by the revenue authority) before the election and the most influential private television station has been closed down (for threatening national security through false reporting) since, armed police walking into the studio in the middle of the 7 pm news to force the channel off the air. Since the election, political retribution has been meted out, including an arson attack on the offices of the opposition party on the Copperbelt, and nine villages in Southern Province being allegedly ‘ethnically cleansed’ by opposition supporters.

It is not obvious how we got to today’s miserable position. Nonetheless, a few preliminary observations can be made.

  • Understanding democracy as a bundle of institutional arrangements is rather simplistic. This is not a novel thought! In comparison to its neighbours, which include the DRC, Angola, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, Zambia has been seen as a haven of peace and democracy, especially since passing the infamous two turnover test in 2011 (the notoriously unhelpful ‘two turnover test’ assumes that, after an authoritarian government has been voted out of office, and then its replacement also democratically removed, democracy has in some sense been consolidated). It has willingly subjected itself to constant processes of externally-supported institution-building, measuring and monitoring, and has undergone a halting process of constitutional reform. All of which was supposed to make this kind of thing unthinkable. It is not only foreign donors who have obsessed on institutions. The opposition also majored on good governance, to the exclusion of presenting a substantive political programme . Without mobilized social movements making demands on the state, without mass-membership political parties which represent substantive political interests and projects, without citizens excited by a belief in the possibility of transforming the country, gains in formal rights – to free association, to freedom of expression – are easily pushed aside.
  • Still, Zambian democracy remains a comparatively level playing field. The two ruling parties that controlled the country from independence in 1964 to multi-partyism in 1991 (Kenneth Kaunda’s UNIP), and which then ruled from 1991 to 2011 (the MMD under Frederick Chiluba, Levy Mwanawasa and Rupiah Banda respectively) were consigned to the dustbin of history pretty much as soon as they lost power. In a sense, fairness breeds competitiveness which breeds insecurity. Parties have a sense of their own mortality. While most Zambian politicians have recycled themselves, crossing the floor between parties as their fortunes rise and fall, at least in the short term, there is plenty at stake, since control of the state remains important in elite strategies of accumulation.
  • The stakes are low for most citizens. In contrast to other parts of the world that have seen increasing political polarization since the global financial crisis, there is little that divides the parties programmatically. Zambia saw a populist/technocratic stand-off in the 2006 elections. However, that populism was so associated with the person of PF founder Michael Sata that it faded and disappeared as he ailed in 2008 and died in 2014. The PF now has very little to do with the personnel or agenda of the party in 2006. Voter turnout fell off a cliff after 2006. Most citizens’ main interest is in avoiding the violence unleashed by cadres hired to give the impression that the parties enjoy energetic popular support.
  • Identity politics makes partisanship and violence worse. In the absence of contestation over competing political visions, identity politics has come to the fore. This is also partly driven by the structure of the party system. The 2015 Presidential by-election was the first in Zambia’s post-‘91 era to boil competition down to just two main parties, and also divided the country geographically down an uncharacteristically clear line, commonly (if somewhat crudely) read as reflecting a UPND Tonga/Lozi alliance in the South and West, and a PF Bemba/Nyanja alliance in the North and East. The two main competitors were the same this time; the ruling PF, led by an Easterner, President Edgar Lungu, and the opposition UPND led by a Southerner, Hakainde Hichilema. To try to end the run of by-elections caused by Presidential deaths, a constitutional amendment now allows for the Vice-President to complete a deceased President’s term, and Zambians voted for the first time for a President/Vice-Presidential ticket. Both candidates chose running mates they imagined could reach across the divide, characters closely associated with rural regions in which the respective parties had performed poorly in 2015, and with a perceived proximity to traditional authorities. As Sishuwa Sishuwa predicted , this strategy had strikingly little success and the 2015 geographical pattern was closely reproduced, with each party winning super-majorities in ‘their’ rural Provinces and the PF winning overall because it continued to dominate the urban vote where the UPND had hoped to make progress on the back of disappointment with the PF’s failure to generate the jobs that Sata had promised.


  • The political atmosphere has become more and more intemperate since 2006. After the shock of the Patriotic Front’s populist surge in 2006, during which Michal Sata brought the angry, excluded Zambian urban poor onto the political stage and excoriated the country’s political and economic elite, the incumbent MMD became tremendously insecure. When the PF won power in 2011, it delivered none of its promise to overturn elitism but populism and the paranoid response to it has poisoned the political culture. Hyper-partisanship has overwhelmed many once proudly non-partisan civil society organisations, churches, traditional authorities and civil servants . Where once, in a national crisis, these groups, led by the Churches, might have stepped up to mediate or organize processes of reconciliation, almost no organization currently holds any status as a trusted neutral intermediary.
  • Rumour mongering has become a national pastime. Even when organizations honestly try to take on non-partisan positions, but comment on public issues, a culture of smearing dominates. Intra-elite rivalries generate new conspiracy theories that are joyously reproduced by a tabloid culture in public and private media. Partisans throw stories into the public sphere with little fear that a revelation that they are lying will do more damage to them than their target. Mirroring Stephen Ellis’ argument that a reliance on ‘pavement radio’ in the era of one-party media gave Africans an unusually well attuned bullshit detector, Wendy Willems has suggested that, during the 2016 election, Zambians navigated rumour and counter-rumour effectively through the wide range of available social media and new independent media sources . I am not so sure.  Of course it is very difficult to assess whether overwhelming public cynicism is grounded in reality or myth, but it seems clear that there is less and less public trust in any public institution. It might be wise to doubt the neutrality of the judiciary, including a new Constitutional Court, the Electoral Commission, or the security wings of the state but the results also include cynicism about all public life, low voter turnout, and a sense of outrage which lends moral cover to purges and to the violence of gangs of hired party cadres.
  • Things might get better. As a result of the two-horse race, and the heavy concentration of the opposition vote in three of the country’s ten Provinces, the Patriotic Front has won a commanding majority in Parliament – the first time this has been achieved without an opposition boycott since the re-introduction of multiparty elections in 1991. On that basis, we might expect some reduction in the frequency of elections, and thus political tensions. Apart from three General Elections and two additional Presidential By-elections in the last decade, the difficulties that ruling parties have faced in getting legislation through minority parliaments has led to a never-ending process of bribing opposition legislators to cross the floor, triggering constant by-elections. With fixed parliaments in place, we might now see a five year gap until the next round… Unless the Presidential petition succeeds (surprising), and either the UPND wins the Presidency in a second round (unlikely), or the court bars the PF from running in the run-off (unthinkable), in which case things might get really ugly.
  • The next administration faces a grim economic context. The difficulties that the PF had delivering on any of their economic promises lie behind some improvement in the UPND’s urban vote. The way in which Zambia’s energy infrastructure has been designed to favour its privatized mines combined soon after the PF took power with a drought that starved the country’s hydro power plants. This led to massive load-shedding and hikes in prices of electricity. Partly as a result of a halving of the global copper price since the party took power, and resulting job losses on the Copperbelt, the PF has overseen an economic crisis during which the Kwacha lost half its value in 2015. President Lungu’s response was to organize a national day of prayer for the currency. Ironically the party then ran its election under the slogan ‘Sontapo’ – ‘We can point to this!’, suggesting that the party had delivered its promises. All the PF could really point to was that they had amended the Constitution and had built a lot of roads (they have built a lot of roads, and this is no mean achievement, opening up huge areas of the vast, land-locked country). However, those roads were largely built by borrowing US$3 billion on bond markets, with the result that, a decade after its massive HIPC debt relief, Zambia is again seriously indebted and the new administration will turn to the IMF for a loan  conditioned particularly on agricultural and fuel subsidy cuts. Just as soon as we know who won the election we will know who has the job of explaining that to the voters.


Alastair is a lecturer in African politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and a member of the Editorial Working Group of the Review of African Political Economy.

Featured Photograph: Hakainde Hichilema’s UPND election parade in Choma.


  1. Alastair rightly points out that ‘understanding democracy as a bundle of institutional arrangements is rather simplistic and rightly draws attention to the inadequacy of the ‘two turnover test’. It is interesting to note that this contradicts the conventional wisdom expressed recently – in an interesting piece on ‘Africa’s fragile democracies’ – by The Economist (20 August 2016) which argued that ‘where democracies are fragile, the two-term rule for heads of governments is invaluable, as it forces change’, and suggests that ‘the two-term rule should be enshrined as a norm by Africa’s regional bodies, just as the African Union forbids coups (sic)’. He does, however, recognise that ‘Zambian democracy remains a comparatively level playing field, at least when compared with neighbouring countries, including DRC, Zimbabwe and others (which I have discussed in a series of interventions for the project on ‘popular protest, social movements and class struggle’ (see elsewhere on this website).

    I agree very much with Alastair, however, that even in countries like Zambia,’without mobilized social movements making demands on the state, without mass-membership political parties which represent substantive political interests and projects, without citizens excited by a belief in the possibility of transforming the country, gains in formal rights – to free association, to freedom of expression – are easily pushed aside’. The systematic repression of such social movements and of genuine opposition rooted in the needs and demands of workers and peasants rather than in the self-interest of various fractions/factions of the political elite within the ruling class remains the norm in all too many of what I refer to as ‘elected dictatorships’ in Africa. In a sub-continent where almost all political parties now claim to be ‘democratic movements for change’, the political impetus of the 1990s and early 2000s has given way, largely, to a routinisation of elections as a proxy for democracy and the increasing number of heads of state who are, in effect, ‘elected dictators’. And even in countries like Zambia, where elections are often ‘a close run thing’ – rather than a technical procedure resulting in a virtually foregone conclusion and the election again of the ruling party and the incumbent as head of state – vote-rigging, harassment of the opposition and control of the media have become routine elements in an electoral process that tends to reduce ‘democracy’ to a largely meaningless game of ‘musical chairs’.

    • Thanks for your comment David. Musical chairs does seem the appropriate term in Zambia. Even if the opposition had won, many of their highest profile figures had only recently been in the ruling party before it re-filled its own ranks with members of the ruling party before that… The two turnover test and the idea of a two-term limit are separate ideas but I don’t put much faith in either of them. Zambia is going through a profound political crisis that began almost the moment it passed the former. I live in a country (the UK) that doesn’t have the latter and, even though the cases of three term leaders we’ve had aren’t very encouraging, and it’s hard to think of any leaders who get better in their third term, I think in the abstract that people should chose whichever leaders they want.

  2. I hope my response finds you well. Allow me to quickly say that your above analysis is thorough and adequate. In fact, it is always great reading from seasoned scholars like you, Alastair Fraser, especially on issues related to Zambia. However, allow me to bring to your attention a number of issues I do not seem to get right.
    1. Identity politics in Zambia- reading your posting, I got an impression that Zambia currently practices identity politics rather than issue based (policy). But again, there is a mention in your article that PF won the 2016 presidential election largely on ‘urban vote’. So, do identity politics promote ‘urban vote’ in Zambia?
    2. The 2015 presidential by-election was the first in Zambia’s post-1991 era to boil competition down to just two main parties…, that’s you. But I want to inquire, have you taken time to analyze the 2001 presidential election results? If yes how different were they from the 2015 results?
    3. When the PF won power in 2011, it delivered none of its promise to overturn elitisim… That’s you. But I want to ask if you are sure about that, because one of the many reasons that worsened Zambia’s economy was Sata’s move to grant civil servant enormous and unsupported salary increase, in his quest to fulfill this promise, at least an attempt was done.
    4. On your sub heading “things might get better”, you indicate that, “with fixed parliament in place, we might now see a five year gap until the next round…Until the Presidential petition succeeds (surprising)…” Why surprising? is it because the judicial system in Zambia is corrupt or ineffective? or because the opposition have no much evidence? or worse still, because the past petitions never succeeded? please clarify. furthermore, you have indicated that, “… “or the court bars the PF from running in the run-off (unthinkable)…” As above, why is it unthinkable for the courts to bar the PF from re-contesting if the law provides for that?
    Finally, the articulation on why particular parties chose the running mates they did and the indication that almost no organization currently in Zambia holds any status as a trusted neutral intermediary, are right on the point.
    Thank you so much for giving me an opportunity to engage you on such important issues, Hoping to learn more from you.

    • Thanks for your thorough comments Robby. We don’t have (or I haven’t seen) good research on many of the issues you pull out, but here are some comments on your questions in turn. Let’s keep the conversation going.
      1) I think identity politics plays a role in urban politics but identity is not necessarily the same as ethnicity: patronage networks also underpin urban partisanship, and religion has been played hard in this election (in an utterly fatuous way in my reading, but I am not religious so perhaps take discussions of Lungu as a ‘humble’ ‘anointed successor’ competing against a ‘satanist’ opponent less seriously than the voters).
      2) It’s true: 2001 results show similarities in terms of the regional spread of UPND votes, but there wasn’t a clear division of the country down the middle because there were three parties in it: UNIP won Eastern, while the MMD held the North. Also the UPND didn’t lock down North-Western quite as convincingly. Lighton Phri has made some very nice animated maps that show the shifting geographical bases of opposition voting since 1991.
      3) Yes, I think the PF made a range of efforts – especially in the first few months of the administration – to ‘deliver’. I’d point not just at civil service wage increases but also pressure on labour issues, letting the wildcat strikes on the Copperbelt run (without the usual state intervention) which pressurized mining companies to offer serious pay settlements, and some efforts at upgrading poor urban neighbourhoods. These were three or four months of concessions to popular pressure/expectations. Long term, job creation was a serious problem in the face of the economic context, and labour disciplining by the state soon came back in.
      4) As you no doubt know, the petition has now been thrown out, without the evidence even being heard. Others more knowledgeable than me have their explanations. Muna Ndulo suggests here that the court was intimidated ( Others have worried about the composition and appointment process of the bench ( The opposition have also struggled to put their evidence in front of the public, which may have to do with the fear of prejudicing the legal process, though PF friendly journalists continually insinuate that it is because that evidence is not compelling. I guess the legal process is exhausted now, so we may find out, but honestly I am not sure.
      All of this has left me to think over the limits of the main claim I make in the original blog. Clearly the rule of law and a sense that the Constitutional Court is beyond political intimidation is important. And in that sense this is about building better institutions. The question I think is still whether, if the opposition was more convincingly connected to social movements, if parties could be made more internally democratic, there could be greater resistance in the face of abuses of power because more people would be invested in the outcomes, rather than seeing them as (unnecessarily violent) games (of musical chairs as David says) being played out between competing elite factions. Sitting next to a running mate who had been central to earlier phases of PF thuggery certainly wouldn’t give voters a sense that HH was on the side of the angels or the masses. To that extent I think the PF didn’t worry about their behavior offending his supporters, or neutrals between the two parties. Reading comments on social media and newspaper articles, playing this dirty game well ‘dribbling’ your opponents is clearly admired by a certain share of the electorate.

  3. Thanks for your elaborate response. You have ably tackled my questions, but as suggested, let’s get interacting and see how the issues continue to unfold.
    The 2016 general elections were unique in the sense that ethnicity took a center stage as the mobilization tool. Previously, the ability of the main political parties (e.i. MMD, UPND, and PF) to articulate policy issues during campaigns spared urban dwellers from falling prey to ‘ethnic voting’ behavior which has for a long time remained characteristic of the ‘rural vote’. In the 11 August 2016, political parties competed against each other largely in terms of music and the dancing skills of their presidential candidates, mostly the two main parties (PF and UPND) and their candidates. The PF assembled more than 30 artists (the country’s most popular musicians) to entertain their audience at political rallies. The UPND, equally had a good number of musicians with a similar pedigree in their camp. Political campaigns were reduced to political entertainments. Electoral candidates at any level spent much of their campaign time dancing and entertaining their audience than they spent articulating issues. In such a ‘vacuum’ one would expect primordial identities such as ethnicity, language, region, among others to take precedence over socio-economic issues.

    On Muna Ndulo’s analysis of the conduct of the Constitution court, many questions still remain unanswered. Questions such as, who really won the 2016 presidential election? Was the court really scared of the many evidence to be presented by the petitioners?, Is judiciary really independent in Zambia? or Was the behavior of the legal councils representing the petitioners professional? Why did petitioners lawyers kept on wasting time to present their evident before the court? or Was the 14 day period for the petition to be heard really constitutional? These and many more questions still beg for answers. Thus, although his analysis may be correct, Ndulo’s silence on many of these issues, including the behavior and competence exhibited by the petitioners’ lawyers, suggests that he was commenting on the issue not as a lawyer but as a Zambian with vested interest.

    Thank you Alastair Fraser


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